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Defusing dangerous dogma in improvisation

This week a group of us re-watched, via a Facebook Watch Party, one of the most impactful talks ever given at an Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) Conference. It was Pablo Suarez speaking about adapting what we know (i.e. improvisation) to the field of disaster preparedness.

Pablo, from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, was with us to re-introduce his presentation and he reminded us that he ‘bumped into the AIN and it changed my life’. And of course it changed AIN too, not least by kicking off a series of great collaborations, including work on the World Climate Conferences (COPs), a joint Improvisation-Humanitarian conference in Oxford and – most recently – the ‘Participate!’ online training course for improving facilitation at humanitarian events.

What made Pablo’s 2015 talk in Montreal so powerful was that he gave us an experience of the potential dangers of blind: ‘Yes-and-ing’. It’s a mantra of comedy improv that ‘Yes..And’ is the mainspring of creating a coherent scene. You accept your partners’ offers and build on them by using the simple rubric of ‘Yes’ followed by ‘And’.

The pitfall is to assume that a very handy improv-theatre tip will serve as a universal principle when we’re figuring out what theatrically-based improvisers might have to offer to the world.

In a double-whammy, Pablo showed how simple: ‘Yes-and-ing’ was not only a potential death-trap (‘dangerous dogma’), but was also a block to our (improvisers) very credibility when discussing core ideas that we hope will lead us to more significant engagements, than – say – pepping up an organisation’s presentation skills.

So the challenge was how improvisers might offer more than a repertoire of energising, playful games and activities. If anything, this is an even more pertinent task now when the world is suddenly experiencing an unprecedented disruption of plans, calling for a whole bunch of improvisational responses.

The first key to this rethinking or recalibration is to note the crucial importance of context. As consultants and facilitators, we need to know what’s appropriate in each organisational or business setting. Activities must fit the culture and relate to purpose.

‘Yes..And’ is then most safely seen as a linguistic tool to be applied in certain circumstances – such as when you want to collaboratively develop an idea. In other settings, it may be that that one person knows best (no need for collaboration) and that some ideas are to be instantly rejected (let’s stay in this danger zone, when the right move is to leave it).

When we venture beyond playful workshops, jazz jams or theatre shows, we need to work out what we can sensibly say in those new contexts.

There are times when improvisation is the best strategy and others when following well-crafted plans to the letter are better. We need to distinguish between those times, and be ready with offers of improvisational principles that are transferable across contexts.

Our principles might include: ‘Make use of what’s available’, ‘Inhabit the Moment’, and ‘Notice what’s working and build on that’. And then we are ready to bring in our toolbox of well-chosen activities that simultaneously illustrate those principles and develop the skill-sets of presence, co-creation and adaptability that are at the heart of great improvisation.

Here’s the link to Pablo’s talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIqatIEuKVk


What dogmas do you think can be let go from classic improv-theatre?

And what’s important to retain when improvisation is applied in the world beyond?

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